MENAKA - In a land far from Mali's capital of Bamako, the houses are covered in rough cement, the streets in a reddish earth; the town is scattered with crumbling mosques and the dust sweeps through the sweltering heat. Opposite an enormous bazaar, there is another mosque, but this time, the men standing outside are all wearing the tagelmust –the turban of the Tuareg people.
Through a door made of stripped metal, we enter into a large courtyard, where small groups of women are sitting together on rugs. One woman, who is not wearing a headscarf, takes my hand. No Islamists here, for this is the villa of Chief Bajam, head of the Oulimeden tribe. He is the elected official of the region, appointed to the Malian National Assembly. Mostly though, he is the supreme authority of Menaka, an extremely strategic village of 100,000 people, close to the Niger border.
He appears, emerging out of the darkness, a huge figure in his shimmering, blue-grey, boubou robe and his dazzlingly bright tagelmust. In his large, powerful hands there is a strand of heavy, wooden prayer beads. He stands there, his black skin, darkened by the desert sun, his strong nose, his somber eyes and white beard.
In the vast hall, around 30 Tuareg men of all ages stare at the ground beneath them. My eyes become accustomed to the half-light, discovering the green, the blue, the dark red and the ochre of the boubous the men are wearing. The sad and rebellious eyes of the men pierce out from underneath their turbans. Bajam retells the story of the battle of Menaka and the disaster that took place there.
“Independence or Sharia”
On November 16, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) of the Tuareg people launched an offensive against the MOJWA Islamists (the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) who have now seized control of Gao, a city in northeast Mali. The offensive was a complete failure. The MNLA separatists were ambushed, conceded defeat and retreated to the town of Menaka, a sanctuary.
However, the Islamists didn't back off, calling for reinforcements and rushing toward the town, heavily armed. The MNLA fled. Bajam seethes: "When they arrived in January, the Malian army had already left, but that did not prevent them from wreaking havoc in the town."
And then, everything was calm. However, once again, the MOJWA Islamists were approaching, and the people of Menaka decided to take a stand: "Independence or Sharia... no one has ever asked us our opinion!"
The Menaka tribe mobilized its troops: 70 men built a line of defense along the sand dunes at the entrance to the town, just before the camp's guards. They called in the MNLA army for reinforcements, hoping that they would bring the 60 armed-vehicles that were available in the area. The response: "We are coming." However, when the battle started, Monday Nov. 19, at around 7:00 A.M., the people of Menaka were alone on their sand dune. The MNLA was not coming. Later, by radio, their top general admits they backed out: "They are too powerful for us."
The Islamists pushed toward the sand dunes. One convoy came with 26 men and ammunition, then a second with 15 more. The first gunfire managed to engulf three MOJWA vehicles into flames. A shower of projectiles rained down on the dunes: "Shrapnel, rocket-launchers, machine guns... they crushed us." The battle raged on all day. And at around 10:00 P.M., in the dark, the Tuareg warriors of Menaka stood down.
“They’re all my children”
Bajam stops, his throat constricted. From one of his robe pockets, he takes out a ringing cellphone. Calling is an advisor to the U.S. Ambassador to Bamako, who thoroughly extends his condolences to the people of Menaka. Bajam listens, thanks him, puts the phone down and sighs: "Out of the 70 warriors, 12 are dead, 33 injured and 15 have been taken prisoner. 12 deaths... they’re all my children!" The men are defeated, their supplies exhausted. The attacks from the MOJWA seem to never end and the Tuareg unity is no longer active. The resistance is dead. Menaka has fallen to the hands of the Islamists.
Today, almost half of the population have fled– 45,000 people who have crossed the border into Niger and are now in refugee camps. Menaka is empty. The Oulimeden tribe is grief-stricken, the Tuareg people sickened and shocked by the brutality of the assault. They are angry at having been caught in the middle of the combat between MNLA separatists and the fanatic Islamists.
"We have to stop these events that are devastating the Sahel, we have to save the population," says Bajam, his voice a mixture of anger and despair. "If not, the Tuareg people will soon disappear."
When we ask him who he thinks should intervene in the conflict - be it the Malian army, Africans, Americans or the French - the old chief clenches his fists and says: "Only the Devil himself can stop this."